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Chipotle to close all restaurants for company-wide meeting in February

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Dec. 27, 2015: Chipotle restaurant at Union Station in Washington. (AP)

Chipotle plans to close all of its stores for a few hours next month to host a company-wide meeting discussing food safety after the chain was tasked with dealing with food poisoning outbreaks last year.

Chris Arnold, a spokesman for Chipotle, told the Oregonian the meeting is expected to take place on Feb. 8 and will involve all staff members. A wide-range of topics are going to be covered in the meeting.

“We want to thank our teams for all their hard work, to discuss some of the changes we are making to enhance food safety, to talk about the restaurants role in all of that and to answer some questions from employees,” Arnold said in an email to the paper.

The company announced Wednesday it will launch a marketing campaign in February to kick off its road to recovery after the food scares. Sales plunged 30 percent in December from the food poisoning outbreaks.

First, an E. coli outbreak came to light at the end of October, with additional cases being reported over the next several weeks. Then, in what Chipotle says was an unrelated case, a norovirus sickened dozens at a Chipotle in Boston.

Last week, the company said it was subpoenaed by federal authorities as part of a criminal investigation tied to a different norovirus outbreak in California over the summer. Lawsuits have also been filed on behalf of customers sickened after eating at the chain.

Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer in Seattle, told the Oregonian that more lawsuits are coming.

“I represent a total of 75 people, but I haven’t filed all their lawsuits yet,” Marler added.

At an investment conference in Orlando, Florida on Wednesday, Chipotle executives said the company is taking measures to reduce the risk of another food scare to "near zero." They said they would start "inviting customers back" to restaurants in February with stepped-up marketing and direct mail offers. They said food safety will not be explicitly referenced in the marketing, but that there might be a "clever headline."

Chipotle Chief Financial Officer Jack Hartung noted the company's recovery would be "messy," with investments in food safety and marketing eating into profit margins.

During the half-hour presentation at the ICR conference, Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ells noted customers will still see food preparation in restaurants, including the grilling of steaks and steaming of rice. That sense of freshly prepared ingredients has been one of Chipotle's attractions as it has sought to distinguish itself from traditional fast-food chains.

Ells noted the company's dedication to food quality in the past, and added that he was confident the company would win back customers and emerge as a stronger company.

Executives said they expect the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to declare the E. coli outbreak to be over at some point. The agency has not identified an ingredient that was responsible for the E. coli outbreak, and Chipotle has said it may never know what was to blame.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Click for more from the Oregonian.